Big Top: Birmingham’s first real shopping centre

14 05 2007

Big TopBig Top is probably the most overlooked building in Birmingham despite being in the most strategic of all locations in the whole of the city. There are a variety of reasons for this. The main one being that its architecture is so damn boring and dull that nobody takes time to look and understand it. Another is more simple: it is adorned in shop frontages and a deteriorating concrete canopy.

Still can’t work out where it is? Well, it is at the junction of New Street and the High Street, behind the buildings that front Corporation Street. The majority of the building is low rise reaching no more than two or three storeys, though there is a large office block on top called City Centre House. When completed, it was Birmingham’s tallest office block – another fact about this place that is very much overlooked.

Big Top was very much a product of post war regeneration. It’s architecture screams that at you. The site was heavily bombed in the war and was pretty much completely wiped out with the only remnants being foundations and a few portions of Victorian façades. This prompted a need for a development here, which is unusual for postwar as most development during this period actually consisted of demolishing a perfectly fine building, and replacing it with a sod ugly one.

The site was cleared almost immediately after the war and was used as a car park for visitors to the Bull Ring coming along New Street. It was a massive site, and a prime plot for development. Times passed slowly still and institutions came and went. The site was the scene of a brutal death when a circus performer, who was displaying an array of animals to a crowd on the site, was mauled to death by a tiger. This was in front of a large crowd and many newspapers of the time described as ‘a sight no one deserves to see, not even the most of wicked’.

The council finally decided that the time was now to build something and as shopping was a most popular past time in the area, a shopping precinct was decided. This was to be Birmingham’s first shopping centre (some even claim that it was the country’s first of its type). Demand for offices was also on the increase and as the old rule goes, supply must exceed demand.

Construction commenced in the mid-1950s and was completed in 1959. The name was given in memory of the circus that set up on site during the period before. ‘Big Top’ is the name given to a tent which houses an entire circus within it. This form of structure was last used in 1958 for safety reasons. The offices were snapped up almost immediately as a result of their location and quality. It was commented as one of the most modern buildings in the city. The shopping centre flourished with visitors who enjoyed a sheltered walk through the arcades admiring the products displayed in the shop windows.

Though, the construction of the new Bull Ring Shopping Centre in the 1960s resulted in a decline of visitors who were more interested in the more modern development with a wider variety of stores.

Big Top, began to decline rapidly during the 1970s. From the outside, on New Street and the High Street, everything looked rosy. But, inside, the arcades were empty, the lighting dingy, flooring peeling, leeks from the roofs and the offices were beginning to empty. It didn’t appeal to people anymore and by the 80s it was in a very sorry state. Shopping was no longer a gay experiences in what may as well be a mining shaft. The ventilation had clogged with dust leaving a musty smell in the air to whoever ventured through the arcades.

What was worse, was that some of the larger shop plots were not actual selling and remained vacant. The complicated floorplans and shape of the plots made them unattractive.

Big Top remains today. The whole site is up for sale and it still looks rosy from New Street and the High Street with big store names such as JJB, Topshop and Primark holding plots. But more recently, the Post Office, one of the largest in the city, shut down. It is easy to see why too. It was an absolute hassle to tidy and organise. To enter, you walked down steps to the main floor and immediately you were in the depths of birthday cards and fluffy pencils. The cashier area was always busy and the narrow area in which it was situated made queueing uncomfortable.

WH Smith still remains and has done for years. It is probably the largest shop in the building. The main floor with all the books and stationary is massive though is broken up by a mysterious wall which digs into the store and by a row of columns, though that does not form the basis of any major complaint. The ground floor where all the magazines are sold is of an unusual plate. There are raised surfaces everywhere and the overall feeling is claustrophobic.

Shopping here is really not a worthwhile experience. Nobody, anymore, says “Ooh, I’m off to Big Top to do a spot of shopping”. It is no longer an actual building, it is just an existing structure that imposes upon the street scape. The arcades are very dark and rely upon light from the shop windows and mysterious entrances for any real assistance for elderly people. It is a security nightmare too. It is notorious for thieves who run out of shops through the walkways, quickly losing security guards.

Architecturally, it is nothing. It is a catastrophe. How on Earth can someone expect the public to shop somewhere where there is no natural light or aesthetic features? But I do find the office building interesting. It is boring but it is bright as well. The designs is also quite nice in that there is more to it than square windows and concrete frames. There are little knobs sticking out of the wall and interesting features around the top. But as I said earlier, it is just there. It is not something someone would notice and began to ponder over. It simply fills a space in the skyline.

So, lets just hope that the current ‘For Sale’ sign indicates that someone could have the balls to build something more imposing and more interesting. It is a strategic plot and it needs realising. But in the meantime, I don’t think you’re going to go shopping there willingly.



13 responses

14 05 2007
Pete Ashton

Facinating stuff.

I did guess from the photo but only because of the three coloured posts. Without them I would have said somewhere on the Coventry Road heading towards the airport.

9 05 2020
John Cook

I well remember the Big Top site. I used to park the car there when visiting the Odeon cinema. I think there was no charge for parking. Those were the days!

14 05 2007

The interesting thing about this story is the way it makes the place sound of nothing. A bombed, empty lot; a place nobody looks at or knows about, even though it’s right smack in front of them; a scheme with an absence of character; a place abandoned almost as soon as it was built. The non-place at the heart of Birmingham. Oddly enough, it has a history as a non-place, too.

It’s either that or the elephant in the room.

15 05 2007
Carl Adamec

Could you tell me who it qas that got killed by a tiger and when this happened. Do you have a link to the newspapers that covered the story at that time. Thanks. Carl Circus Reform Yes Minneapolis, MN

15 05 2007

Carl Adamec: I’m afraid I know nothing more than what I have written here about the death of the man. A lot of my sources are from books, though most is from my own experiences. As for this, this can be sourced to a book which is very sketchy on the details on the man.

Sorry I couldn’t be of any help to you.

25 07 2007

WH Smith must be an amazing building to explore on its plans. As a kid the music section was in the basement which you cant access anymore.

I’d recommend Pevsner Architectural Guide to support your research, really good new edition for £9.99.

It does disagree with your building date for Big-Top with it being built 1956-61. So it made the sixties just.

30 10 2007

A friend of mine says her father was a circus performer in Birmingham and was mauled to death by a tiger in the 1930’s. She is not sure of the exact date because she was told whilst she was very young but now this web page has verified the story I hope to be able to find out more through newspaper archives.
Her father’s name was John William Cleaver but the incident may have been reported under his performer’s name.

31 10 2007

Jenny: That is very interesting, and tragic as well. However, if these two events are the same, I am not sure. This site would have built during the 1930s. It was only after World War II and the bombing that came with it that the circus was established on the site. Maybe your friend meant the 1940s or she may have described a different incident.

Thanks for commenting though!

3 04 2010
Paul Kimber

Three years too late but you might like to check this link out. It seems they are refurbing some of big top with a nice glass structure 🙂


11 01 2013

I have just bought an oil painting by James Priddey, “The Noisy Green Devil (Big Top Workings)” showing a green crane on a building site in front of an orange wall, a tall building in the back ground.

15 01 2013

does anyone remember the co-op during the 1960`s

25 12 2016

The main office block has been rented by the tax office, hmir & now the merged hmrc, after the MOD moved out. There are tunnels in the delivery area leading to to the council house (50’s building so had to provide for nuclear attack!). HMRC is due to vacate in 2020/21 as part of tax office cut backs. It’s at that point the location will be redevelopment. Spent over 25:years working in this building, no owner has spent any money to upgrade, lifts breakdown & staff have to walk up 3 to 11 floors (the 12th floor has been empty since 60’s even had the same furniture in cobwebs until a few years ago when new owners trashed the place).

22 08 2017
David Jinks

Is it true that somewhere deap in the depths of the building a secret communications and control centre exists. Apparently it was to be used as the seat of government in case of war.

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